Like many of us, Karol (Bo) Bobko was in need of some guidance while attending Brooklyn Technical High School in New York City in the late 1950s. Enter Mrs. Helen Bunger, an English teacher, and her husband, an engineer. As mentors to the teenager, the Bungers had a powerful and positive effect in both finding and advancing Bobko's professional career.
After graduating from the Air Force Academy as a member of its first class in 1959, Bobko received a masters of science degree in aerospace engineering. He went on to become a jet fighter pilot and a NASA astronaut, a veteran of three space flights who logged 386 hours in space. Bobko was a member of the astronaut support crew for the historic Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, and mission commander of STS-51-J aboard shuttle Atlantis on a top secret space mission in 1985.
"Looking back I was fortunate to have some wonderful mentors who were my heroes," Bobko recalled. "Mr. and Mrs. Bunger got me going down the path of engineering which opened up so many incredible opportunities for me."
What does it take to be a hero? It's the theme that runs throughout new exhibition "Heroes & Legends" at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Designed to be the first stop upon entering the complex, the $20 million, 20,000 square-foot exhibition transports guests back to the early years of NASA's manned space program to explore the concept of heroism utilizing four unique settings.
A NASA design specialist, Eric Stiles came up with the concept three years ago.
"We tell how the early pioneers of Mercury paved the way for the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions," Stiles explained. "Those seven astronauts' courage and dedication built the foundation. There's a common thread that runs through all these men-- the attributes of a hero. The challenge putting the exhibit together was not to do too much. Not to get into the specifics of the rockets or revolutionary technology.
"It's all about storytelling, making it a highly emotional experience. We've taken the early space story and transformed it into an amazing theatrical and multi-sensory experience. Guests live the stories of those incredible experiences when they were happening during that period in history."
The building entrance is graced by a 30 foot tall, 40 foot wide digitally sculpted bas-relief of the Mercury Seven astronauts on the exterior wall. The first presentation takes place in the 360-degree Discovery Bay. Rapid-fire images flash along a curving wall as dozens of people from the early astronauts to Elon Musk, Mark Twain to Carl Sagan, everyday people to wide-eyed kids, deliver candid and spontaneous responses to: what is a hero? The segment also touches upon the rivalry between the U. S. and the former Soviet Union that was the impetus for America's push to the stars.
From there guests walk down into a theater for "Through the Eyes of a Hero." They gather on a dimly-lit platform, hovering in a void as dark as deep space itself and don 3D glasses to experience a 360-degree view of Earth and space, above you, below you, all around you. It's a dizzying multisensory experience. Guests vicariously accompany astronauts Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong as historic images from the Mercury program through the first Apollo mission-- some quite perilous-- are projected on a 225-degree sweep, 28-foot tall screen. Choreographed lighting and special effects — including fog, water spray and gusts of wind — add to the feeling of being "right there."
Falcon’s Treehouse in Orlando, Florida, is the attraction designer and executive producer. It was awarded the cinematic project in a competition versus 25 other companies.
"Through the use of computer-generated images, computer graphics and live film shoots, guests will have felt they've personally experienced the thrills and dangers of these space age heroes on their quests," said Cecil Magpuri, chief creative officer and president of Falcon's Treehouse.
One clever segment is the re-creation of astronaut Jim Lovell, as a young man, walking on the Cape Canaveral beach with famed aviator Charles Lindbergh watching an Apollo rocket launch. The blending of real images with recreated history is present throughout Heroes & Legends.
In another room the third presentation "A Hero is..." unfolds to highlight nine separate attributes that create an astronaut-- inspired, curious, passionate, tenacious, disciplined, confident, courageous, principled and selfless. These exhibit modules explain each quality, enhanced by actual space artifacts including a Redstone rocket suspended overhead along with the Sigma 7 capsule. Guests can explore the original Mercury Mission control room and through the use of holograms, watch Eugene Cerran on a spacewalk outside of Gemini IX spacecraft.
The exhibition concludes in the newly relocated Astronauts Hall of Fame where visitors are greeted by a life-size, bronze statue of Alan Shepard-- the man who lit the torch for the future of human spaceflight. Housed in a rotunda, a 360-degree video cylinder provides high-definition projections of still and moving images in the center of the room. It pays homage to all of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle astronauts inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Kiosk stations provide access to stories about each of the inductees.
Astronauts Bobko and Jerry Ross were stationed in the room chatting about the space travel and posing for pictures. Though downplaying the word hero, both talked of encouraging today's youngsters to explore the heavens.
"They've done a really nice job on this exhibition, accurately portraying many of the astronauts' experiences," Bobko said. "It's my hope that the legacies of these pioneers will inspire the next generation as we look toward the future of space exploration."
Photos courtesy of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex